Anna Katharine Green was one of the first women to write detective stories & this book with a series detective was published nearly ten years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began publishing his Sherlock Holmes stories. Set in New York, The Leavenworth Case is the story of the murder of wealthy Horatio Leavenworth. He’s found shot in the head one morning in the library of his mansion on Fifth Avenue. The room was locked & the key is missing but the weapon seems to have been his own pistol, found back in its usual place in his room. The house also seems secure so the obvious inference is that one of the family or servants is responsible.
Leavenworth was unmarried but he lived with two nieces, Mary & Eleonore (they’re cousins, not sisters) & it soon becomes obvious that one if not both of them had a motive to kill him. Horatio was a peculiar man. Incredibly wealthy, he had given a home to his nieces after they were orphaned. He seemed to love them both yet, on the grounds that one of the was more attractive than the other, he left all his money to Mary & Eleonore could expect very little. The girls seem to be on friendly yet not intimate terms. Brought up as sisters yet not treated equally. Leavenworth also had an unreasonable prejudice against Englishmen which will be an important clue to the actions of Mary & Eleonore in the months before their uncle’s death.
At the inquest (held, as was customary at the time, at the scene of the crime), damning circumstantial evidence seems to point to Eleonore’s guilt. Her handkerchief is found stained with the grease where someone had cleaned the murder weapon. Eleonore was seen to take a piece of paper from the desk where her uncle lay dead & she admits to having handled the pistol on the day of the murder. One of the maidservants, Hannah Chester, disappears on the night of the murder & then there’s the mysterious stranger who was admitted to the house to see Eleonore on the night of the murder. Who was he & why did he visit the house twice, giving a different name on each occasion? There are red herrings, clues aplenty & another murder before this case is solved.
The Leavenworth Case is narrated by a young lawyer, Mr Everett Raymond, who is an assistant to the Leavenworth family’s lawyer (conveniently out of town). He is summoned to the house by Mr Leavenworth’s secretary, Trueman Harwell, on the morning the body is discovered to give some support & legal advice to the young ladies. He becomes involved in the investigation along with Ebenezer Gryce, the police detective in charge of the case. Raymond soon has another motive in discovering the identity of the murderer as he falls in love with Eleonore & is desperate to clear her from suspicion.
The Leavenworth Case was a trailblazer in detective fiction. Ebenezer Gryce is a detective in the tradition of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House or Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone. His appearance & eccentric behaviour are a step towards the characterization of the Golden Age detectives like Hercule Poirot & Gideon Fell. Some of his sayings are reminiscent of Holmes or they would be if they hadn’t been written nearly ten years before Holmes appeared,
Now it is a principle which every detective recognizes the truth of, that if of a hundred leading circumstances connected with a crime, ninety-nine of these are acts pointing to the suspected party with unerring certainty but the hundredth equally important act one which that person could not have performed, the whole fabric of suspicion is destroyed.
Green’s writing is very melodramatic. Her language & dialogue is heightened, almost in the manner of the great sensation novelists of the period. This is Eleonore protesting her innocence to Everett Raymond,
“You have said that if I declared my innocence you would believe me,” exclaimed she, lifting her head as I entered. “See here,” and laying her cheek against the pallid brow of her dead benefactor, she kissed the clay-cold lips softly, wildly, agonizedly, then leaping to her feet, cried in a subdued but thrilling tone:”Could I do that if I were guilty? Would not the breath freeze on my lips, the blood congeal in my veins, the life feint away at my heart? Son of a father loved and reverenced, can you believe me to be a woman stained with crime when I can do this?” And kneeling again she cast her arms over and about that inanimate form, looking in my face at the same time with an expression no mortal touch could paint, not tongue describe.
Anna Katharine Green was a pioneer of detective fiction. This was her first novel & she went on to write more books featuring Ebenezer Gryce, as well as other series with her spinster detective Amelia Butterworth & Violet Strange. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.